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“Madame Genever” or the History of Women and Gin

When you think about gin, maybe you don’t think of women, but rather about bearded guys who tell you about the newest craft gin you have to try. But did you know that women were very involved in gin’s history?

Perhaps you have already heard some of the feminine nicknames for gin: “Mother Gin”, “Mother’s Ruin”, “Madame Genever…”, but where do they come from?

We start our journey in England with Mary of Orange. The daughter of King Charles I was married to a Dutchman in 1641. Since genever (as the forerunner of gin was called) originally comes from the Netherlands, her marriage helped her popularize the drink in England, they even drank it at court, a big deal back then. It might have helped that the English blockade against trade from France meant that the English missed their French Brandy and were in dire need of something new. After Mary died, the British made it legal for anyone to distill their own gin, which directly led to something we now call “the gin craze”. The nickname “Lady Genever” was born.

Doorzichtige glazen kelderfles Hoppe echte oude genever, groen en veelkleurig, between 1870-1920.

Credit: https://museumrotterdam.nl/collectie/item/49008
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/legalcode

The Taste of Independence

The second important lady in the history of gin is Queen Anne, who loved the spirit. Queen Anne made the already popular drink even more widespread when she changed the law that allowed only people in and around Westminster and London to distill spirits. Soon, hundreds of new distilleries flooded the spirit market, once dominated by French Brandy. Thus began a remarkable equality between men and women when it came to the popular spirit: Men and women distilled and sold gin, and both drank gin in equal quantities. For women, gin meant an exciting venture into public life in the 18th century. While it may seem natural to us that women can drink in any bar nowadays, in Paris and many other European cities, women could not drink in the same places men could back then.

George Cruikshank’s engraving of The Gin Shop (1829), a satirical sketch on the dangers of drinking alcohol

Credit: http://explore.bl.uk/primo_library/libweb/action/dlDisplay.do?vid=BLVU1&search_scope=LSCOP-ALL&docId=BLL01000829303&fn=permalink

“Mother’s Ruin”

But soon the reputation of women who drank gin began to change with the appearance of the famous nickname “Mother’s Ruin”. It is not clear whether this refers to women who tried to have abortions with gin (the juniper berry is infamously bad for a fetus), or to the popular picture “Gin Lane” (1751) by William Hogarth. In the picture, you can see a drunk woman dropping her baby. At this time gin already had a notorious reputation because of Judith Defour, a woman who apparently abandoned her 2-year-old daughter in a field to sell her clothes for gin. The girl died, Judith was hanged and the panic about gin and its influence on mothers was born. Up until then, women were rather seen as victims of alcohol, namely being beaten by their drunk husbands. But now, for maybe the first time in English history, women were the drunks, the villains who abandoned their role as mothers and caretakers. And it is true to some extent, while men drank ale in ale-houses, women drank more and more gin in places like markets and the backrooms of household goods stores. After Dufour’s case in 1734, the gin production in England was made harder and more expensive and the “gin craze” or the “gin epidemic” was over.

Gin Lane, 1751 by English artist William Hogarth

Credit: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/399847

Breaking Boundaries

A woman more positively associated with gin is Ada Coleman, who lived from 1875 until 1966. She started as a bartender and worked herself up to be the first female lead bartender at the famous American Bar in the Savoy’s Hotel in London. She not only served people like Mark Twain, Marlene Dietrich, or Charlie Chaplin, but also invented the Hanky Panky, a famous cocktail made with gin, vermouth, and Fernet Branca. Coleman’s contemporary Dorothy Parker was an American writer and satirist who was also a gin, and especially martini, enthusiast. Historians fight about it, but we really want to believe that she wrote this fun poem:

I like to have a martini

Two at the very most

After three I’m under the table

After four I’m under my host

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